- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

Curator Walter B. Denny leads an energetic press tour of his exhibition, "Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets," at the Textile Museum. Mr. Denny, 60, a professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is intense, fast-talking and fast-walking. It is difficult to keep up with him and take notes. Clearly, he loves the subject and wants his audience to relish it, too.

"If you can think about 'the carpet' as a medium that transmits emotion and information as does a marble sculpture, etched print and painted canvas," he says, "then you can savor and enjoy the exhibition.

"Anatolian rugs are not just colorful textiles to throw on the floor absent-mindedly," he adds enthusiastically. "The textiles express thousands of years of refinement of design, advances in technique, complex developments in symbolism and know-how in producing the most beautiful rugs."

The curator has aimed to show common sources for the rugs' designs, techniques and materials, but he also wanted to put together a drop-dead-gorgeous exhibition. He has succeeded with 50 Turkish carpets from the 15th through 19th centuries drawn primarily from the museum's core collection of Anatolian weavings.

Textile Museum founder George Hewitt Myers (1875-1957) passionately amassed many of the textiles in his lifetime, and Mr. Denny continues that passion. (Anatolia forms the Asian part of Turkey, and today the designation "Turkish rugs" is synonymous with "Anatolian carpets.")

Mr. Denny leads his visitors to a huge glass case holding three carpets from different traditions and times but with similar motifs for example, the eight-pointed star. The vitrine holds a brilliant red "Saff Carpet Fragment" (probably central Anatolia, 16th century or 17th century); a "Chessboard" or "Damascus Carpet" (probably Syria, late 16th century); and a "Para-Mamluk" Carpet Fragment (possibly Azerbaijan, Tabriz in northwestern Iran, 15th century or early 16th century).

"Saff," the Arabic word for row or rank, describes carpets woven with a design of multiple compartments, often with an arch- or niche-like design. Mr. Denny notes that worshippersprobably used them as floor coverings in mosques. The designs helped them to line up in orderly rows to face the wall facing the holy city of Mecca.

One exhibit label reads: "In each compartment, a hanging lamp under each arch recalls a famous passage from the Koran in which God is described as the light of the heavens and the earth, and whose divine light is likened to an illuminated glass lamp hanging in a niche."

With Mr. Denny's help, viewers can identify the archlike designs that hold the stars in the "Saff" fragment. They can also pick out the 16 elongated dart motifs and small flowers surrounding the star in the "Chessboard" example. Visitors also observe that designers made the star even richer with additional geometric forms in the "Para-Mamluk" fragment. These were strictly carpet designs based on geometric patterns.

Mr. Denny leads the press on an adventure that is much like assembling a fascinating puzzle. "It's easy to see that a few, easily identified groups of earlier carpets served as models for the later, 17th- through 19th-century carpets. 'Classical' means carpet designs that never went out of favor," he says.

He stops next at the Oriental "painter carpets," explaining their fame in Europe after such artists as Hans Holbein, Lorenzo Lotto, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Giovanni Bellini and Hans Memling placed them on tables and floors in their works. As early as the 15th century, large numbers of rugs appeared in European paintings, and many are still named after the painters who used them.

The beauty of the patterning and intense reds, blues and golds overcome off-putting names such as "Small-Pattern Holbein Carpets," "Large Pattern Holbein Carpets" and "Memling Carpets." Their subtle design variations may remind visitors of those in a Johannes Bach fugue.

The three small-pattern Holbein carpets, with their typical rows of small, knotted medallions, were named after a rug in a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, the famed 16th-century German painter. Weavers created the carpets over two centuries, producing many variations and finally settling on a vertically compacted pattern.

A "Large-Pattern Holbein Carpet" from Mr. Myers' original collection, shows the bold designs three octagonal motifs laid horizontally that attract the attention of today's viewers.

"The Memling Pattern," named after the early 16th-century Flemish painter Hans Memling, holds rows of small stepped medallions with projecting hooks. Mr. Denny says the pattern is almost a literal translation of an ancient nomadic Turkish design. It was brought to Anatolia by one of the many roving Turkish animal herders in the 11th or 12th century.

Another design phenomenon appeared in Anatolia in the late 15th century with carpets woven in the city of Ushak. Weavers turned away from traditional geometric designs in a "carpet design revolution" to adapt curvilinear forms. They looked to design traditions other than carpets and turned to those of stylized flora and fauna in drawings, colorful tile decorations, illuminations and book bindings.

The patterning rhythms definitely changed with running eight-petalled star medallions, arabesques of vines and lotus blossoms, and split-leaf forms. Many seem looser and freer than those of geometric design.

Production and size were also different in the large commercial workshops near the west Anatolian city of Ushak, where carpets became bigger and were woven in the typical color palette of red, dark blue and yellow.

Later, classical Anatolian carpet motifs copied silver jewelry ornaments. Designers also adapted fantastically patterned tulips, carnations and hyacinths from mosques in Istanbul such as the famous "Blue Mosque." Mr. Denny finishes with galleries of elegant carpets inspired by celebrated, expensively woven silks from Egypt, Iran, Italy, China and Anatolia.

There is much more, of course, and Mr. Denny describes it all in the informative exhibit labels and handsome catalog. The exhibit runs through Feb. 16 of next year. Don't miss it.


WHAT: "The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets"

WHERE: Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, to 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 16.

TICKETS: Free, with a suggested donation of $5

PHONE: 202/667-0441

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